Michael Smith interviews Chair of the Republican Leadership Council, and former US EPA head, Christine Todd Whitman
Christine Todd Whitman was Governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001 and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the administration of President George W Bush from 2001 to 2003. After several public conflicts with the Bush administration, Whitman resigned to spend more time with her family. In an interview in 2007 Whitman stated that Vice President Dick Cheney’s insistence on easing air pollution controls, not the personal reasons she cited at the time, led to her resignation. A moderate Republican, she chairs the Republican Leadership Council which promotes candidates who are “fiscally conservative, socially inclusive”.
Smith: How, in general, do you think Obama has been doing?
Whitman: I’ve been very disappointed with his presidency in that I don’t believe he has addressed the fiscal issues that our country so desperately needs addressed in a way that shows real leadership. Particularly when he walked away from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility report that he commissioned and that was delivered to him in a bipartisan fashion.
Smith: What do you think of his stance on healthcare?
Whitman: Well, the problem that I have with the healthcare bill as it was submitted to the Congress is that it doesn’t take any of the cost out of healthcare. It is an insurance reform bill and not a healthcare reform bill and there is still a lot of work we need to do to take the real cost out of the healthcare system to make it affordable for people.
Smith: I know that taxation was a big issue for you when you were Governor of New Jersey. How do you think he is doing for taxation policy and aspirations?
Whitman: Well, obviously I’m a strong believer in reducing taxes but I also don’t think that you can do that in a vacuum and you have to reduce spending at the same time. Again, we’ve seen a lot more rhetoric than we have seen of actual performance in any of these areas and that is very troubling.
Smith: Do you think his jobs stimulus has been effective?
Whitman: It’s worked in some cases and not in others and, unfortunately, in this political climate, all you hear about is where there weren’t successes, and yet there have been some and clearly it has made a difference in people’s lives. The problem you have with that kind of stimulus is that you can’t keep it going forever.
Smith: How about his attitude on gay marriage?
Whitman: I’m a supporter of letting people decide, as consenting adults, to make informed decisions about who they want to share their future with. I think that we ought to adopt the system that you see in many European countries where the only time the government has an involvement with the process is when they go down to register at the clerk’s office and that that’s the only time that the government has a say. I think the government ought to be out of the marriage business entirely.
Smith: Do you think he deserves credit for bravery in coming out in support of gay marriage?
Whitman: Yes, I do. I mean, I don’t fault him for that – let me put it that way.
Smith: Do you approve of his foreign affairs policy, especially on Iraq and Afghanistan?
Whitman: Well, I’d like to see us out of those places right now. I don’t know how many people more we have to see get murdered, get killed before we say; “We just can’t keep this going, it isn’t in our best national interest,” but he has started that process. It is a process that was started under George W Bush and I’d like to see that continue at a more robust pace.
Smith: On the other side, are you excited about the new Republican ticket?
Whitman: I have mixed feelings about it. I certainly support the focus on government spending, because I don’t think we’ve had enough of that. I support the idea that what we have got to do is get the discussion pack on that track and start to really understand that thats where our biggest challenges lie. On the other hand, I’m not fully in sync with what has been put forward as a tax proposal of Mr Ryan, and yet, since I’m not happy at all with the performance of this administration, relative to the economy, it’s a question of splitting hairs on that one.
Smith: What do you think of the Tea Party and Occupy, respectively?
Whitman: Well, interestingly enough, I really believe that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street were two sides of the same coin. They both were responding, creating their demands out of a frustration of what was not being solved by the United States Congress and I’m totally in sync with them there. Congress has been avoiding the major issues, looking at everything through a partisan-political prism. Where I break with the Tea Party is where it has suddenly started to morph into a greater focus on the social issues.
Smith: Which do you think has been more influential, the Tea Party or Occupy?
Whitman: Well, unfortunately they both represent extremes, extreme solutions to all the problems and so I don’t feel that either one of them has the answers that we need, but they all have a beginning of answers. They have a way to approach it. They have legitimate issues that they are raising, but I’m not wholly in one camp or the other because I don’t believe that either throwing everybody out or voting everybody in is the answer.
Smith: This is a typical European question I suppose, but can I ask you: Do you believe in equality, and if so, what sort of equality?
Whitman: I believe in what our founding fathers said in the constitution. That among the inalienable rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There is not a guarantee of happiness, but the right to pursue happiness, and that to me means giving people the kind of start that would be necessary to be able to compete in society. When you say that, to my mind, you’re talking about the quality of education. It shouldn’t matter where someone is born, what kind of an education they get. The ability to compete for jobs is based on your basic background education and those are the things where government has a responsibility, but not to guarantee everything for everybody, and not everybody’s going to succeed.
Smith: So that is equality of opportunity rather that equality of outcome, essentially?
Whitman: Yes. You can’t guarantee the outcomes, you can give people a fair shot at being able to try to achieve those things.
Smith: Now, turning to the environment; What was your biggest achievement in the EPA?
Whitman: One would have been the movement to getting a nutrient- trading programme going for rivers and streams to try to clean them up. It’s a nutrient trading programme along the lines of the acid-rain-trading programme from the 1990 ‘Clean Air Act’ amendments. And then also getting the brown fields legislation through, which was something that had been attempted several times before and never achieved by other administrations. And finally I’d have to say, vastly reducing the amount of pollutants in diesel engines, which was something that the National Resources Defence Council said was perhaps the most important thing done for human health since we’d taken lead out of gasoline.
Smith: What do you think are the biggest issues now facing the US environment?
Whitman: Basically, an understanding of the importance of the environment. To me, water is the number one environmental issue of the 21st century. Quantity and quality, not just in the United States, but world wide. I believe we need to focus on that. We don’t have an energy policy in this country. We haven’t had an energy policy for many years now, and we are in desperate need of that.
Smith: Then on to climate change; do you think that humankind will keep global temperature rises below 2% over pre-industrial levels?
Whitman: Right now, not in this country. I don’t see the appetite. There’s still a refusal to concede that human activity has an impact, although even the Republican team is beginning to recognise the weight of the evidence that says that in fact humans do have an impact. I always say that you can’t say that humans cause climate change because the climate has been changing since the earth was formed, but to say that human activity doesn’t have an impact is being disingenuous at best.
Smith: And are you using your influence within the Republican party, do you think, to bring about changes in the attitude to climate change?
Whitman: Well, I try. It hasn’t been terribly successful but I am certainly someone who is speaking out about it all the time, and when asked.
Smith: And what do you think the consequences of breaching the 2% over pre-industrial level standard would be?
Whitman: Well the problem is in this country, if you try to set a target like that, you immediately run into the buzz-saw of “that will kill the economy”, and right now, with the economy being where it is, it’s very easy to make a case for not doing anything that might in any way slow down economic growth.
Smith: Do you think it’s implicitly, given that the science seems to be very clear cut, the view of policy-makers that there is going to be a technological fix for carbon-emission and climate-change problem?
Whitman: Well that’s what everybody wants. Unfortunately we are a nation that loves the easy solution. I mean, we’ll do anything, and we’ll do it very well if you tell us “do this and you’ll solve all the problems”. Unfortunately there is no one easy solution to the issue of climate change. In fact, there is a study done now (it’s got to be about 12 years old) funded by NASA and it said that in the previous 300 years you would have had to double the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere to have the same impact on climate change as you had from land-use changes. Nobody talks about land-use changes and they don’t talk about them because they’re difficult.
Smith: And how’s the current regime doing on water and air, do you think?
Whitman: Very little, and it’s very upsetting.
Smith: Do you believe there’s scope for environmental taxes in the US?
Whitman: There’s no appetite for that in this country at all.
Smith: How do you see the role of the EPA and has it changed? The US EPA has interpreted its role very broadly, whereas in Ireland, the EPA is quite conservative in how it sees its role. In particular in the States the EPA has used air and water issues, over which it has a clear mandate, as an avenue for a federal – rather than State – approach to land-use planning, over which its mandate is less clear.
Whitman: Well this administration has certainly been a more activist administration as far as the Environmental Protection Agency is concerned, but I believe that it was an over-reach when they, very early on, tried to put climate change into an amendment to a spending bill and it scared off people who otherwise would have been supportive of some action towards climate change.
The agency often gets blamed for things that they are forced to do by regulation because what people forget, when Congress established the EPA, is that they were very prescriptive in what the agency had to do and how and when it had to do it. As regards clean air there are, for instance, times when you can use cost-benefit analysis and times when you absolutely may not use cost-benefit analysis. So when the EPA tries to provide any flexibility, or recognise any of the climatic differences between parts of the country, it gets hauled into court almost immediately by the Enviros, and the court generally finds against the EPA because the laws establishing the EPA are pretty clear about what you can and can’t do.
Smith: Have you been following the economic situation in Ireland?
Whitman: Yes, your ups and downs.
Smith: Any advice?
Whitman: I wouldn’t presume to try to advise the Irish. I mean, you’ve been able to come through this before, but no matter how much the public say they want solutions to these problems, deep down inside, as long as somebody else pays the price and not them, they’re very comfortable with it. If it’s them then the elected official pays the price and that’s difficult, but I have faith that the Irish economy will be back.